Are Poppies Racist?

[D]uring the last few years an exceptionally debased form of pacifism, growing out of the philosophy of materialism, has attempted to divide us into two camps: on the one side ignorant, bloodthirsty militarists, and on the other enlightened pacifists. It is the object of the self-styled enlightened people to persuade the young that the war was ‘futile’; that those who fought were silly dupes swept away by emotional appeal; that nobody knew what it was about; that nobody can say who was guilty of beginning it all; and so on.

That is by J.B. Morton, in his introduction to the 1934 reprint of The Barber of Putney (first published 1919).

His language is characteristically boisterous, but he has a point about the influence of this pervasive dualism. In the Age of Morpurgo, its influence is stronger than ever, and we can expect to see plenty of signs of it as we enter this year’s Remembrance season. This year poppies seem to be the main target of people who think in binary terms. Poppy Day is about war, but it isn’t explicitly pacifist, so it must be militarist, the binary logic goes.
The Daily Mail reports a survey suggesting that many young people will not wear a poppy, because it is a symbol that glorifies war.

poppy survey

Surveys should always be taken with a pinch of salt, but I think I believe this one. The most interesting part of the article is this:

One in 12 people who wear poppies said they had experienced hostility because of it, or had seen someone else targeted. Some parents – around one in 20 – would not want their children to wear a poppy in case they were picked on. Notably, the numbers who had seen or experienced abuse rose to more than one in five, 21 per cent, among the under-24s.

Who is doing the bullying? Lefties? Pacifists? People with loyalties to countries and cultures other than British? I’d like to know.

A clue comes from The Independent (now online-only), which is running quite a campaign against the poppy, including an article claiming that as a symbol it is racist. Robert Fisk snorts furiously that in an age where reminders of the country’s religious heritage are not permitted in television newsrooms, wearing the poppy is de rigeur, and carries nasty political overtones:

Yet the poppy just manages to sneak onto the screen of BBC World; it is permissible, you see, the very last symbol that “our” dead remain more precious than the millions of human beings we have killed, in the Middle East for example, for whom we wear no token of remembrance. Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara will be wearing his poppy this week – but not for those he liquidated in his grotesque invasion of Iraq.


So – because other people have been killed, Britain should not remember its own war dead? It is fair enough for Mr Fisk to be critical of recent Middle Eastern wars, but I think his resentment is misdirected. Poppy Day remembers those who dies fighting for his country, and raises money to help veterans wounded or destabilised by fighting for him. If he disapproves of the wars, it is not logical to take it out on the soldiers. His argument is with the politicians who sent them to war, or, ultimately, with the voters, such as himself, who voted those politicians into power.
In the twenties the poppy succeeded as a unifying symbol precisely because it was felt to be non-political. The ceremonies of Remembrance, which included laying wreaths of poppies, were inclusive. Those who wanted to celebrate the military virtues could stand next to those to whom the sense of the pain and waste of war were a major motivation, in shared homage to the dead. The eleventh of November brought the country together in serious ritual at war memorials everywhere.
Now it is only a smallish proportion of the population who attend Remembrance parades and services. They tend to be older people, people with family links to the last century’s wars, people with connections to the military and people with strong connections to the locality whose dead are being remembered. In David Goodhart’s useful classification, they are Somewhere people rather than Anywhere people.
Those who don’t belong to these categories will probably find it difficult to identify witht he local remembrance parade, and may regard such ceremonies as alien. Some, like Mr Fisk, will regard them as nationalist. Hearing the local brass band play marches, they will assume that the ceremony is militarist. Seeing mostly white faces in the crowd, they may assume it is racial.

Pinning a poppy to your coat is no longer something that everyone does. It is a definite statement, and one that many are shy of making. Robert Fisk suggests that there is official pressure to wear poppies. They are certainly de rigeur at the BBC, and not just for newsreaders and other presenters. In past years I have found it amusing when some Strictly Come Dancing contestants wear a poppy and very little else. In Fisk’s small media world, the pressure may be there – but in real life, I doubt it. Are there many jobs where a poppy is an expected part of the November uniform these days? It is more likely, as the Mail’s survey suggests, that the pressure is otherwise.
Maybe I’ll come back to this theme, wondering what effect the centenary celebrations have had on people’s willingness to remember.


  1. Paul Norman
    Posted November 5, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Interesting piece and news to me. Sounds like the poppy has been highjacked. Well, I always wear a poppy out of respect. And I loathe war and would never glorify it.

  2. Alan Allport
    Posted November 5, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I could take the Daily Mail’s complaining about the poppy being politicized more seriously if it and other reactionary rags hadn’t so clumsily sought to appropriate it as a symbol for themselves and their own values.

  3. Posted November 5, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I have white poppies as well (and have been told off for wearing those). I tend to wear both the red and the white (if I do at all). The red to remember the carnage of the past and the white in hope of a more peaceful future. But, looking to the world I see my white poppy deeply stained with streaks of red. What do the Germans and French do?

    • Posted November 5, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I’ve never been so keen on the white poppies. Whereas the red ones are designedly non-political (though some may find political meanings in them) the white poppies are a deliberate political statement, and an atempt to make the red ones look political. I can’t see an equivalence between the two, since sale of the red poppies finances care for disabled and needy ex-servicemen, while funds from selling white ones just go to subsidising pacifist enterprises.

  4. Posted November 10, 2017 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    I fell out with the Royal British Legion many years ago, following arguments about how they assessed the “deservingness” of ex-servicemen and have refused to wear a red poppy since. I like to choose which charities I contribute to, rather than feed the RBL’s monopoly on remembrance. I still occasionally buy a white poppy if I see one available. They seem rarer than they used to be.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: